Feminist Therapy: Setting boundaries, trusting your gut, and dealing with postpartum depression in a partner

Our feminist therapist, Hillary McBride, answers your questions on the last Friday of every month.

I am a therapist, but I am not your therapist. Therapy, in my opinion, is not just about the information I give, but also about the highly individualized relationship I build with each client, getting to know their unique needs, strengths, and challenges. This column is not meant to substitute individual therapy. When in doubt, speak to a therapist about these issues — preferably someone who knows you, who you feel safe with, and who is equipped to support you exactly as you are.

** All of the questions I received were complex, and profoundly honest. Thank you for your submissions. The questions answered in this month’s column were edited for length and privacy, while attempting to preserve the original question.

Dear Feminist Therapist,

I am having an issue with an ex of mine. He comes across as a generally nice man but is also very clingy and smothering. After we broke up, I explained to him very clearly that I don’t want contact with him, but he did not respect that, so I have lashed out at him. Recently, I had to reiterate that I no longer wish to have any kind of relationship, and that I would no longer speak with him. But I recently learned that I had contracted HPV from a man who raped me, and so had to contact him to let him know. This seems to have opened the doors to him contacting me again. How do I get rid of him?

-D

Dear D,

I’m so sad and frustrated for you — for the rape, and for having to deal with HPV and yet another person in your life who won’t respect your boundaries. I am glad your relationship with this person is over, and that you felt resilient enough to end a relationship with someone who does not respect you and your boundaries.

Although you should not have to do this, as people should be respectful of your desire to end communication, it may be necessary to block this man’s phone number and/or email address. You may or may not want to tell him that you are doing that. It might be necessary to state again, in writing, that you are asking him to not contact you anymore, and that if he continues to do so that you will be seeking out a non-contact order. Different states and provinces have different regulations around how to accomplish this, so I recommend looking into the process so you are informed and equipped.

Remember, you do not have to justify to him why you do not want to be with him. Nor do you have to get into a conversation at all. With boundaries — especially when you are dealing with someone who is not listening — a simple “no” or “do not talk to me anymore” is sufficient. If they continue to attempt to engage with you, just restating the boundary will do. You may feel like a broken record, but it’s not your job to justify that you are not interested in something, especially with a person who will not listen to you anyway. It may help to practice saying “no,” or to pretend responding to him with a friend, until it feels comfortable to state your position again and again, without feeling like you need to explain further or that you owe him a response. If you find that you get sucked into conversation, or that setting boundaries is difficult for you in general, you might find Boundaries by Anne Katherine useful

Remember, your “no” is valuable, even if the other person doesn’t listen at first. You have the right to state for yourself, and for those around for you, what does not work for you.

~~~

Dear Feminist Therapist,

I was dating a soon-to-be-licensed therapist a few months ago. I met him through an online dating app, and he identified himself as a feminist on our very first date. We hung out for a few months; he didn’t want to put “labels” on things and declared I was “someone to have sex with that he could trust.” He had already sexually violated me when he said this, so in fact I couldn’t trust him. He is into BDSM, as a “Dom.” After dating him for a month, I realized what a sadistic, manipulative, and aggressive man he is. He was charming and apparently “totally feminist, but engaged in aggressive, abusive sex with me, without consent, leaving me coveredgrr in bruises. Is there anything I can do to protect other women — especially young liberal feminists — from men like this? It troubles me that men like him can become mental health professionals.

– E

Dear E,

Yikes! The terrifying reality is that anyone with the appropriate academic and clinical experience can get licensed, regardless of the values they hold in their private life, or how they treat the people around them. It seems like early on, something didn’t sit well with you. I’m so glad you got away from that relationship, and trusted yourself in the end. I wonder what it would take for you to listen to yourself earlier next time, and know that when your intuition speaks to you about a guy, you have every right to listen to yourself and end contact with him without explanation?

If he assaulted you, and coerced you into sex, it’s not a bad idea to report him to his licensing body. You may be able to do this anonymously. It may not stop him from getting licensed, at this point, but if someone else makes a complaint down the line — another person or a client — their complaint will be stronger having your information linked to him. If you feel safe doing so, you might consider reporting him to the police.

Unfortunately, being licensed does not mean you are a high quality therapist — it just means you are allowed to practice. For this reason, I always recommend that when people are looking for a therapist, they interview potential therapists, or do a trial session before jumping in. While doing that, listen to your “gut” — see what your body is telling you about whether the therapist is safe or not. You can also ask them if they are feminist, and to talk a little about their views on feminism. Often, though, therapists will decline to share details about their political views — some take the position that this kind of self-disclosure in a counselling relationship is contrary to their professional theoretical and ethical approach. If this is the case, another way of getting to know them is to ask about their theoretical orientation, and how their theoretical orientation informs their work with women, minorities, and around sex and sexuality. It’s also a good idea to start seeing a therapist based on a personal recommendation from someone you know and trust — this is likely the closest you will get to having a “reference.”

~~~

Dear Feminist Therapist,

My wife and I had a baby several years ago using a sperm donor. We decided it was best if I was the one to get pregnant, and that this would be the first of two. It was really hard when our daughter was born, but I feel like I have grown a lot. On the other hand, my wife struggled — she had really severe postpartum depression, something that’s not really talked about as something experienced by the non-pregnant partner. Our daughter also had some medical concerns which have made the last few years a challenge at times. Now, I’m ready to try to have our next kid, but she has changed her mind about having another one. Understandably, she is worried she will get depression again, even though I will be the one who gets pregnant and gives birth. She is also worried that we might have another baby with medical challenges, like our daughter. We’ve been arguing a lot, and can’t seem to reach an agreement on what to do. How do we figure out whether to have another child, as a couple?

-M

Dear M,

What a difficult position to be in. No matter what the issue is, if something is important to us, but our partner doesn’t agree on the best way forward, it can be painful, isolating, scary, and confusing. I empathize with both of you. When we first meet someone and talk about all the things we want from a life together, we forget that sometimes things can change, and what we wanted at first we no longer want. It is understandable that, considering what she went through the first time, she wouldn’t want to do it again.

If you do indeed want to stay together, and having another child is not a deal-breaker for you, do your best to stay together as a team. While it is possible that, if you had another child, the experience would be different this time around, if your partner is worried and resentful once you get pregnant again, that could ultimately be very painful. It could also be damaging in terms of the relationships between you, your partner, your daughter, and the next child.

From my perspective, your wife’s boundary needs to be respected, for her sake and for the sake of everyone else in the family. What that might mean is that you grieve, and learn to grieve with her, or find a way to do that on your own. If you haven’t already, you might also want to have a conversation about adoption.

It is also possible that if what happened last time is explored and healed, your partner’s feelings change. You may need to have numerous conversations about how difficult the postpartum period was for her. She might need room to talk about how she felt alone, abandoned, scared, or rejected. She may need to do some therapy, on her own or with you, to see if she can work through any of the blocks she has around a second pregnancy.

If your partner is worried that what happened last time will happen again, there are things to do to make sure you are both better prepared than you were before. Get a postpartum doula. Have her plan regular appointments with a therapist who works with postpartum parents and couples. If necessary, have her get a referral to a physician or psychiatrist who specializes in reproductive mental health. Have meals made ahead of time and frozen, or order a meal service. Prioritize healthy sleep behavior. Inquire about shared parental leave, or about whether she is able to take vacation time off work.

No matter what happens moving forward, the two of you are in it together, and need to feel like you each have the support you need to deal with the pain and losses you experience, whether that means you losing out on the opportunity to have another child, or her dealing with postpartum challenges. Do your best not to shut each other down in conversation, but to listen and hear each other, instead, making sure the other person feels validated even if you don’t agree. That might include statements like, “I hear how important that is to you, and I wish I felt differently so I could give you what you wanted.” Or, “I know this is hard for you — even if we want different things I want you to know that I care about your sadness, and will listen to you cry anytime you need me to.”

You can send your questions for Hillary, our Feminist Therapist, to info@feministcurrent.com or hillarylmcbride@gmail.com with the subject: “Feminist Therapy,” or tweet her @hillarylmcbride using the hashtag, #feministtherapy. (We will anonymize your questions, unless you specifically ask us to include your name.)

Hillary McBride
Hillary McBride

Hillary McBride is a registered clinical counsellor working in the Vancouver area. She specializes in women’s experiences and feminist therapy. Hillary is a PhD student at the University of British Columbia, where she researches women’s experiences using feminist methodologies. She is the author of “Mothers, Daughters, and Body Image: Learning to Love Ourselves as We Are” and recently won the International Young Investigator Award in Human Sexuality from Taylor & Francis for her research and clinical work on sexuality in mothers.

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  • Mythandry

    D should state her desire to have no further contact, and keep a record of that demand, then do not engage him again. She should not restate the demand, nor reply to any other provocations by this man. Doing so rewards his behavior and sets the bar for him to gauge the amount of pestering needed to be done to get a reaction from her. Someone who doesn’t respect boundaries is one thing. Someone repeatedly ignoring a no-contact request is a stalker, and ought to be regarded exactly as such. I think anything less is less-than-optimal advice.

    • Wren

      I agree. Even just writing “no” in response to any communication from him is giving him attention and reinforcement. It’s better to make it very clear that she doesn’t want any more communication and then block his phone calls, emails, etc. If she shows any signs of hesitation, he will continue. I’ve learned this the hard way.

      • Zoe

        I completely agree. Continuing to engage with a man that is exhibiting stalking behavior (and violating her boundaries repeatedly absolutely qualifies) ends up just feeding his need for her attention. He gets off on getting a reaction.
        I recommend the book The Gift of Fear. It talks about how dangerous it is to keep engaging with these predatory types of men.
        Saying “no, leave me alone” once is enough. From then on, just IGNORE him entirely. No contact, no response. No more fuel for his obsession.

    • will

      I agree. I think she should also inform friends and family – whoever comprises her support system – in case he pushes back with violence. Reading that letter and H. McBride’s response, I am thinking of the statistics on femicide and the number of female victims whose story includes trying to set boundaries with men who would not respect those boundaries.

  • Nan

    I am surprised to read that the parent struggling with post partum depression is not the one who has lived through the fatigue and hormonal roller coaster of actually being pregnant and giving birth. However, I understand that having a child is a life altering turning point which can be challenging for all parents, and I appreciate the ever compassionate answer.
    But I can’t help but wonder whether the comments would have been as accepting if the depressed parent had been male. I imagine all too well commenters saying that she should just dump that self-absorbed crybaby, that women should not validate or cater to men’s feels, etc.
    Could feminists be sometimes prone to double standard too?

    • Omzig Online

      No, I was wondering the same thing myself. I thought it was a little weird that both the birth mother and the therapist uncritically accepted the other parent’s symptoms as “post-partum depression” rather than situational depression.

      Obviously, any parent can experience depression secondary to losing sleep and other lifestyle changes, but that seems decidedly different from the physiological trauma of being torn open from the inside and plummeting hormones that only the birth mother experienced.

      I could be wrong, but it feels like appropriation to me. And yes, it would be kind of a joke if a man laid claim to the exact same syndrome as a woman that gestated and gave birth. That would be pretty silly.

  • Meghan Murphy

    To be honest, I question the use of the term ‘postpartum depression’ to describe the experience of a person who did not actually give birth. It would, from my perspective, more accurately be described as simply ‘depression.’ Happy to hear the perspectives of others, of course. Indeed, it’s worth questioning, then, whether men could claim they experienced ‘postpartum depression.’

  • Morag999

    ” … was anyone else surprised to hear about postpartum depression suffered by someone who didn’t give birth?”

    Yes. Very.

    And I agree with what Meghan wrote: that a depression unrelated to pregnancy and childbirth — that is, unrelated to the biological processes of motherhood — should be described as simply “depression.” Even if its trigger is the new stressors involved in becoming a parent.

  • Lucy Potato

    Agree. How can one possibly be said to have a condition that specifically relates to a state that they did not experience? In no way do I diminish what this woman endured, but its simply inaccurate to describe it as post-partum.

  • HillaryLMcBride

    To be clear, I did not use the term ‘postpartum depression’ in my response because – it was depression that occurred in the period after the baby was born, but depression none the less. I work with several heterosexual couples where the male partner struggles with acute mental illness after the birth of the baby – for some people, the lack of sleep is enough to trigger latent mental illness in either partner. Much more research needs to be done to better understand how these things relate to the onset of mental illness during the postpartum period for either person in the couple, but it is empirically valid that the severe lack of sleep (including in the non-carrying partner who is invested and committed to equal partnership in raising the child) can be one of the most significant predictors for depression (and even more severe mental illnesses) in the postpartum period.

    • Cassandra

      “Postpartum period” still rubs the wrong way. “Postpartum” is a term that belongs to females and IMO should be reserved for people who have given birth and for them only. Couples don’t give birth. “Postpartum period” is too inclusive of the partner and veers toward erasing who did the actual work of having a baby. Perhaps another term specific to the depression that can affect a partner would be useful.